Washington state leaders must tax the way to a just society

With Cynthia Stewart, Published in Tacoma’s The News Tribune December 7, 2019

Few topics are less understood or more quickly put the public to sleep than tax policy. Yet especially in our state, it’s essential knowledge.

And not just because public oversight of government depends on it. If you care about redressing our nation’s racially biased past, it is necessary to recognize how tax policy furthers our regrettable history of disparate treatment for different races.

The inequalities in our state’s tax code are well known, and have gained us the ignoble designation of “the most unfair state and local tax system in the country.”

This medal of dishonor from the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy is based on ITEP’s assessment of how fairly the tax burden is spread among residents in the 50 states. Washington ranks dead last.

The problem is that our state and local governments rely heavily on sales and excise taxes, which fall disproportionately on the poor. Meanwhile, Washington lacks the income or wealth taxes to rebalance the burden towards those with the means to carry it.

The result is that those least able to pay for government services pay the most. Our poorest residents pay 18 percent of their income in state and local taxes; the state’s super-rich pay only 3 percent.

This inverted way of paying for necessary services provided by state and local governments means that through our tax code, we bestow benefits on the rich by leaning hard on the poor.

Americans today increasingly understand that the stain of our racially biased history isn’t behind us. Whether we inspect the long-term impact of housing, voting, employment or social policies, or we examine the ongoing legacy of criminal justice and educational systems, we find our past is still alive in the present.

One clear vestige of this past is today’s distribution of wealth and income. Wealth tells us how resources have accumulated in families over the generations. The typical white household in American has 10 times more wealth than has a typical black one.

In Washington, black residents are three times more likely than white ones to be poor, and poverty remains entrenched among our state’s Native American population.

Such unequal outcomes don’t result from bad choices or misfortune, but rather from a historically tilted, state-sponsored playing field that advantages the light-skinned among us.

We can thus add Washington’s tax code to the list of ways that American policy disadvantages people of color.

A key problem those seeking tax reform in our state face, however, is that the topic is wonky. When the conversation turns to, say, the difference between marginal and average taxes, the public changes the channel.

Moreover, opponents of any reform can easily tap into people’s fear of more taxes by focusing on the obvious burdens rather than their less understood benefits – good schools, a cleaner environment, safe roads, beautiful parks and assistance to the needy.

As we write, the holidays are here. In this season of reflection, we ask you to consider how we collectively pay for our governments, and how our state’s unfair tax system aggravates rather than undoes our racially biased past.

This year, join us in calling for a major shift in Washington’s tax policy. Contact your legislators and demand they support a capital gains tax in the upcoming session, and move forward plans for an income tax.

It’s easy to hate taxes and reach for the remote when the topic arises. But paying for the services our government provides is a necessary evil. It’s time to decouple it from the unnecessary evil of Washington’s racially imbalanced tax system.

Katie Baird is a professor of economics at the University of Washington Tacoma. Reach her at kebaird@uw.edu. Cynthia Stewart is president of the Tacoma-Pierce County League of Women Voters. Reach her at stewdahl@comcast.net.